The Illinois High School Association state football playoffs continue this week, but only one metro-east team remains in contention for a state title.
The East St. Louis Flyers crushed Willowbrook 60-27 in the Class 7A quarterfinals on Saturday and move into the semifinals with a 12-0 record and dreams of the eighth state championship in school history.
The Flyers will be back on the road at 2 p.m. Saturday when they travel to Lisle to take on Benet Academy (10-2) in the 7A semifinals.
Seeded 11th, Benet Academy defeated No. 3 seed and previously unbeaten Rolling Meadows 15-8 on Saturday. The Benet defense had two interceptions and limited Rolling Meadows to 220 yards of offense, including only 76 yards passing.
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Winners of a metro-east record seven state football championships, East St. Louis will be trying for its first trip to trip to the state title game since winning the 7A state title in 2008. The Flyers, led by current assistant coach and then Parade All-American Terry Hawthorne, defeated Geneva 33-14 to win the 2008 7A state championship.
This will be East St. Louis’ fifth semifinal appearance since 2007.
East St. Louis fighting for another state title
Willowbrook football coach Nick Hildreth had seen scouting reports and watched film. On Saturday, Hildreth and his Warriors got a look at the top-ranked Class 7A team in the state.
Hildreth was impressed after watching his 23rd-seeded Warriors dismantled by the East St. Louis Flyers 60-27 on Saturday in the state quarterfinals
“You try to simulate in practice what you see on film,” Hildreth said. “But you can’t simulate their speed and athletes. We’ve seen fast teams this season — especially in the first two weeks of the playoffs — but nothing like East St. Louis speed.”
One of those athletes was Flyers’ All-American wide receiver Jeff Thomas, who made his presence known with big plays twice in the opening quarter.
Flyers quarterback Reyondous Estes, who missed connecting with Thomas by inches earlier on the opening drive, found his favorite target open over the middle. Thomas caught the ball at the Warriors’ 15-yard line and with two defensive players closing in, simply shifted into another gear and outran them into the end zone for the Flyers first score.
Thomas then provided an ESPN-like highlight a little over three minutes later, when he fielded a Warriors punt at the Flyers’ 40 yard line, reversed his field and ran 35 yards. Five plays later, Jarrell Anderson tallied on a 2-yard run and East St. Louis led 14-0.
“Rey made a great throw on the touchdown pass. It was right on target and I was able to catch it in stride and just take it in,’’ Thomas said. “We were and are very determined to get to the state championship game and win it this year. Last year was tough because we didn’t feel we got our chance because of the (East St. Louis) teachers strike. It’s made us a lot more determined this year.”
Althoff-Rochester sequel just as incredible
After a 19-point lead had disappeared Saturday night, the Althoff Crusaders were back on the attack in the waning moments of their Class 4A quarterfinal matchup against Rochester at Lindenwood Stadium in Belleville.
With Althoff trailing 48-47, Crusaders quarterback Trey Mosley was in a bind. On a fourth-and-11 play from the Rockets’ 41-yard line, he was surrounded by three defenders.
But in the nick of time, Mosley spotted senior Edwyn Brown open in the middle of the field. Throwing off his back foot, across his body, Mosley hit Brown for a 15-yard gain and a first down on the 26.
“What a play he made,” Rochester coach Derek Leonard said. “Unbelievable. I thought it was over then.”
Fortunately for Leonard, he was wrong.
Mosley then threw a -1-yard pass to senior Jordan Goodwin that was followed by two incompletions, the second of which was ruled to be intentionally grounded.
On fourth-and-18 with 10 seconds left, Mosley was surrounded again and this time he went down, with the sack being credited to senior Nick Damarin.
“It’s kind of a shame that one of these teams had to lose. It ended up being us this year,” Crusaders coach Ken Turner said. “I just feel like this was a state-championship team and now we have to finish our season. But they were a pretty good team, too. They fought hard and they’re a well-coached team. We had our chance at the end and couldn’t pull it through.”
Leonard believed the game topped the classic from last year that Althoff won 46-42. The loss ended Rochester’s string of five consecutive state championships.
“It did,” Leonard said. “How couldn’t it? It was unbelievable. For our fans, what an exciting game. On the road against a great team in an environment like this, it was crazy. These were two of the best teams, any class, in the state of Illinois and maybe the Midwest. I really believe that. They made us look untalented at times, so I know how talented they are.”
Rochester (11-1) will play host to Canton (10-2) in the semifinals at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Rockets senior D’Ante Cox, who scored the go-ahead touchdown with a diving catch of senior quarterback Nic Baker’s 45-yard pass with 2:03 to play, said there’s no way he wanted to experience a second straight loss to the Crusaders. Last year was too painful.
“It was personal to me because we lost and I didn’t want that feeling,” Cox said. “I don’t like losing. I’m a winner, so I was going to give everything I’ve got.”
Althoff (11-1) forged ahead 47-28 on senior Jaylon Bester’s 9-yard touchdown run with 6:45 to play in the third quarter. Bester finished with 223 yards and five touchdowns on 22 carries.
The Crusaders, however, didn’t score in the final 18:45.
Althoff was unable to use Bester to collect first downs and run time off the clock after Rochester trimmed its deficit to 47-35 with 5:07 left in the third quarter and 47-42 with 6:12 to play in the game.
“We do what they give us,” Turner said. “It’s not a ground game, it’s not a passing game. If they’re stopping our run, we’re going to throw the football. If they’re stopping our pass, we’re going to run the football. We try to do what we feel like is open.
“They did a good job in the second half, not allowing us much. The penalties killed us. They did. They stopped drives. I felt like we were able to do what we wanted to do throughout the whole game. But we had penalties here and there and didn’t finish off drives.”
Althoff finished with 21 penalties for 182 yards. The costliest of the bunch was a holding violation that took away junior Justin Strong’s interception on the Rockets’ final possession. Two plays later, Rochester was in the end zone.
Leonard said the Rockets had a lot to do with Althoff unable to seal the outcome.
“We picked it up,” Leonard said. “We struggled in the first half - all-around. We just couldn’t get clicking. It was a lot of things. That was us in the second half. It wasn’t us in the first half.”
Turner said he felt bad for all his seniors. Among them were key players like Mosley, Bester, Brown, Jordan Goodwin, C.J. Coldon, Bryson Strong, Austin Carey, Christian Wills, Chris Branson, Stephon Belt and Royce Pane.
“We’ve got some great players on this football team, some seniors that worked hard for four years (and) it had to end like this,” Turner said. “We’re a good team, they’re a good team. It wasn’t like we were playing somebody that’s not good. They won the game.
“I hate that we couldn’t get this job done for them. They wanted to get it done for me. To be honest with you, I wanted to get it done for them because they were a great group of seniors. We couldn’t pull it through.”